Donald Trump is abandoning small town kids, and I intend to do something about it

In the small print of the federal budget, far below military spending and border wall construction, is a line for “IMLS.” It’s the Institute for Museum and Library Services, a federal agency with the mission to help 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums in all 50 states. Last year’s total budget for IMLS was less than the cost of one F22 fighter jet.

Even with a small budget, IMLS has done amazing work, opening minds and igniting passion for learning in communities all over the country. Millions of people are impacted for the better. They have funded eBook classics, early literacy, art for senior citizens, and many other creative projects.

But for now, let’s assume you hate art and literature, and you only care about making America great again. Still, IMLS is critical. Computer coding is a major reason.

Starting in 2014, IMLS has funded computer programming education for kids in small towns. In places like Parker, Arizona (population 3,073), young people have no visibility to the fast-growing technology jobs in Los Angeles (4 hours away) and Phoenix (2.5 hours away). But the kids in Parker, like all kids in the U.S, entered the world surrounded by technology, and the extent of their success in the future will depend largely on their ability to get along with computers.

With IMLS funding and the support of the AZ State Library, we have helped superstar librarian Tracy McConnell run a weekly code club over the past two years. Siblings Patrick, Stan, and Lorena have been regulars at the club, learning the basics of coding and having fun building simple projects like this and this (hint: turn your volume down).

Similar clubs have been running in other small towns, opening doors for young people that could benefit the most by learning to code. We have proposed or developed projects with IMLS funding that would bring coding to hundreds more small libraries. Not only do these code clubs help the individuals in these communities, but they unlock a vast resource that has been under-utilized — the minds of rural America.

As my friends at Andela say, “Brilliance is evenly distributed; opportunity is not.” That is just as true inside the our borders as it is around the world.

Here comes the bad news. Are you sitting down? IMLS is on the chopping block, scheduled to be cut from the 2018 federal budget. And without IMLS funding, these small libraries will not be able to run code clubs. Kids in small towns will be left with shrinking career paths, and missing the world of opportunity available to those who learn computer programming.

What can be done?

Along with my team at Prenda, we have been racking our brains to come up with a creative solution to this conundrum. We help libraries run code club, and our specialty is librarians that don’t have any expertise with computer programming. Here’s a quick video about our approach:

Our vision is code club every week in every library. But without IMLS, it’s hard to imagine how small libraries — the ones who need it most — will be able to afford our service.

My business friends, who told me years ago that it was crazy to build a business selling to libraries, are pushing me to give up on libraries and charge upper middle class parents instead. My sales team wants to focus on the larger library systems, the ones with the budget to pay for our programs. My advisors have encouraged me to work with school districts who might have more funding.

But I can’t help it. I love rural libraries. I see the library as a sort of teleportation station in a small town, one that can magically move people from a status quo mindset to a world of opportunity.

So I’m not giving up.

With the vision of free code clubs meeting every week in every library, I have said all along that I would give away our software and training if I could. Unfortunately, it costs money to make software, and the good folks training and supporting librarians have families, so that makes the free option impossible.

Here’s the next best thing. It’s called “Buy one give one” and it’s become popular through companies like Starbucks and Tom’s Shoes. We’d like to try this for code clubs — for each library that pays for code club, we will donate a code club in a small community (population of 5,000 or less). Because this is new for us, we are setting a time limit on the program; the offer is good for any library that starts a code club before August 1 of this year.

We’re hitting the ground running. Thanks to the addition of larger libraries in the last few weeks, we are pleased to announce free code clubs in:

  • O’Neill, Nebraska (pop. 3,700)
  • New Town City, North Dakota (pop. 2,363)
  • Gooding, Idaho (pop. 3,475)
  • Mapleton, Iowa (pop. 1,235)

This is just a start. We’d love to extend this program to communities across the U.S.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if the next Facebook or Instagram was started by young coders at the public library in one of these small towns? Can you imagine the impact to these communities if kids gain the skills for high-paying software jobs?

You can help!

The library community is an amazing group. Tight-knit, passionate about shared values, and very willing to share information and ideas (go figure). To successfully engage small town kids with coding at the library, we need to work together. Here are some things you can do:

  • Libraries serving populations under 5,000 people can apply for a free year of code club (normal price: $2500) at this link.
  • If you are with a larger library, you can help by spreading the word about this. There are easy share buttons below, and the good old-fashioned link in an email works great too.
  • Bonus points if you know someone at a technology company, philanthropic foundation, or other organization that may be willing to help with the mission of bringing coding to small communities.
  • And if you have been thinking about offering coding at your library, this is a great time to do it! You will not only help your own community, but also the small town kids that need it most.

I have no idea how this will work, but I’m looking forward to finding out! Please reach out with any thoughts, questions, or suggestions, and let’s work together to open doors through coding for the small towns of America.

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